Beyoncé, Sex Terrorist: A Menace for Conservatives and Liberals Alike

By condemning the pop star, both Bill O'Reilly and bell hooks profit off her body while ignoring her art.
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Hating Beyoncé unites all Americans!  Or so it seemed last week, anyway. From the right, Fox pundit Bill O'Reilly used a segment of his show to express shock at Beyoncé's video "Partition," in which she presents herself having sex in a limo with her husband while name-dropping Monica Lewinsky. From the left, feminist scholar bell hooks, speaking on a panel at The New School in New York City, took issue with Beyoncé's Time magazine cover, in which the singer posed in her underwear.

Though they're coming from different points on the political spectrum, hooks and O'Reilly’s concerns were remarkably similar. According to O'Reilly, "Teenage girls look up to Beyoncé, particularly girls of color. Why would she do it when she knows the devastation that unwanted pregnancies. … Why would Beyoncé do that?"  Hooks, surprisingly, seems to agree. "I see a part of Beyoncé that is, in fact, anti-feminist—that is, a terrorist—especially in terms of the impact on young girls," she said. O'Reilly sees himself as defending conservative family values against a corrupting mainstream entertainment industry; hooks sees herself as a radical fighting against "imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy." But both are worried about the effect of Beyoncé's sexualized body on young girls, and both see that effect in violent terms—as "devastation" and terror.

At the same time as they talk about the brutalizing effects of Beyoncé's nudity, both O'Reilly and hooks capitalize upon it. O'Reilly's segment on Beyoncé (featuring a politely exasperated Russell Simmons, who had hoped to talk about his book) includes numerous sultry images from the video, undoubtedly because some Fox New producer figured that showing semi-nude images of Beyoncé would appeal to viewers, whether because of prurience or moralism or both.

For her part, bell hooks was first skeptical that Beyoncé had control of the image on the Time cover, and then (when Janet Mock assured her that no one is putting out Beyoncé covers without Beyoncé's approval) suggested that Beyoncé "is colluding in the construction of herself as a slave.” I think hooks has good points about the cover overall; Beyoncé is presented as child-like and vulnerable in a way that fits with images of black women as disempowered, available for men, and abused. "It's not a liberatory image," as hooks says. But libertory or not, it's Beyoncé's image hooks herself is using, just as it's Beyoncé's image O'Reilly deploys to generate moralistic panic. Hooks was speaking in an academic setting, and the Time cover was not shown, but still, Beyoncé's sexualized body functions in her argument as prop, one that effectively amplified hooks’s words and ideas.

When you talk about Beyoncé, people listen—which is why hooks's comments about the singer have gone viral, while the rest of the discussion (which included author and activist Janet Mock, filmmaker Shola Lynch, and author Marci Blackman) has largely been ignored. O'Reilly, hooks, and certainly me, exist in a media environment where people will click on anything having to do with Beyoncé, especially if it is something having to do with Beyoncé and sex. If you can add violence in ("devastation" "terrorist"), you've got the trifecta of profitable attention.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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